It’s a workplace bullying case that defies logic yet an employer let it happen and it’s now costing them big money.
Now Brisbane compensation law expert Mark O’Connor says a Supreme Court judgement awarding a female labourer more than $1.3 million for the abuse she suffered is a hard reminder to all employers to enforce workplace anti-bullying policies.
A female labourer who endured endless harassment on a worksite by fellow employees, her foremen and even contractors, finally took her employers to court when she couldn’t take any more.
The woman sued her employers for being vicariously responsible for the actions of its employees and contractors, and a Judgement handed down last month in the Supreme Court of Victoria was a victory for the woman who also had to endure a 5 day trial before her employer admitted liability for her career-ending bullying ordeal.
Mr O’Connor, a Director of Brisbane law firm Bennett & Philp Lawyers and an Accredited Specialist in personal injury compensation law, said although the case referred to a Victorian business, the ramifications of it applied Australia-wide and Queensland employers should take note.
“It’s an expensive and sharp wake-up call of the price an employer may have to pay- both financially and to their reputation by not acting swiftly to control a toxic workplace,” he said.
The victim was awarded general damages of $380,000 for pain and suffering and impairment, a further $283,942 for past lost wages and damages for future loss of income of wages for $696,085.
The Court heard the woman worked for Victorian construction firm Winslow Constructors (Vic) Pty Ltd and began working as a labourer in 2008 where she was subjected to endless abuse and taunts on a worksite project. The bullying came from fellow workers, her foreman and contractors.
The woman complained to her supervisor and was later moved to another team where she was not bullied. However some months later she was later transferred back to the original team and the abuse happened again.
Mr O’Connor said it appeared on the facts contained in the judgement the employers were either totally ignorant of their obligations to an employee’s wellbeing or had no systems to police them.
“Employers have a duty of care for the safety of their employees and also a duty to provide a safe system of work and to take care to avoid psychiatric injury for its employees,” he said.
The Court accepted the woman had developed a serious psychiatric condition from the sustained abuse which ended her career and meant she was unlikely to ever return to work.
It took five days into the trial before the employers admitted their liability for her injuries.
Mr O’Connor said the lesson for Queensland employers and employees from this case was to ensure an employer’s anti-bullying policies were strictly enforced and well documented.
“If the employer had properly followed through when the complaint was made and not allowed the worker to later be moved back to the abusive team, this whole tragedy might not have happened. This is a glaring example of failing to control a toxic workplace.
“Employees should not endure any bullying and should promptly report it to supervisors and demand action to protect themselves from the abuse. As the Victoria case showed, employers are liable for heavy penalties if they fail to protect employees from bullying,” he said.
Individual liability limited by a scheme approved under professional standards legislation (personal injury work exempted).